Authorities have recovered a scroll written by Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong following its high-profile theft last month. As Clifford Lo and Fiona Sun report for the South China Morning Post, an unwitting buyer apparently cut the nine-foot-long calligraphy scroll in half under the mistaken impression that it was a counterfeit.
Thieves stole the artifact—valued at an estimated $300 million—from collector Fu Chunxiao’s Hong Kong apartment during a brazen September 10 heist. In total, the burglars pilfered ten bronze coins, more than 24,000 stamps and seven Mao calligraphy scrolls—a trove worth around $645 million, Fu told investigators, who are still working to independently determine the items’ value.
Per the Art Newspaper’s Margaret Carrigan, one of the postage stamps bears an overt reference to the Chinese Communist Party, stating, “The whole country is red.” Another stolen stamp is one of the world’s most valuable, most recently selling at auction for $2 million.
“According to our investigation, someone thought that the calligraphy was too long,” said Tony Ho, a senior superintendent with the Hong Kong police’s organized crime bureau, at a Tuesday press conference, as quoted by the Associated Press. “It was difficult to show it, to display it, and that’s why it was cut in half.”
The scroll is noteworthy in large part due to its creator, who played an essential role in the formation of China’s modern government. Mao grounded his political philosophy in Marxist literature, initiating such disastrous campaigns as the Great Leap Forward and the bloody Cultural Revolution. He served as chairman of the People’s Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976.
Mao often used a brush and ink to write his correspondence and poetry in calligraphy. In 2017, a collection of the revolutionary’s handwritten notes sold at Sotheby’s for around $910,000—ten times its estimated price, according to BBC News.
The man who cut the scroll in two reportedly purchased it for just $65. He surrendered himself to authorities on September 22; as Tiffany May reports for the New York Times, investigators are still determining whether the buyer knew “the authenticity and value of the calligraphy.” A subsequent search of the man’s apartment yielded two of the stolen copper coins, per the South China Morning Post.
Police have arrested three men connected to the burglary, but at least two others remain at large. The majority of the stolen goods—including the stamps and other six Mao scrolls—are still missing.
“It was heartbreaking to see [the scroll] be torn into two pieces,” Fu tells the South China Morning Post. “It will definitely affect its value, but the impact remains to be seen.”